Although Republicans aren't ready to throw in the towel, and Democrats aren’t doing the Snoopy Happy Dance of victory, the news for the GOP continues to be, well, bad. In an August 18 article, Washington Post reporter Jim VandeHei penned a front-page piece, “Republicans Losing ‘The Security Moms.’” A trusted base of GOP victories in 2002 and 2004, these married women with children “are taking flight from GOP politicians this year” and turning to the Democrats.
And, after a brief surge in popularity earlier this year, President Bush’s approval among Americans has sunk well into the 30% range—which many political pundits say spell real problems for the GOP this November. And, after months of rumors that Republicans were distancing themselves from the president, it’s becoming less of a rumor and more of a trend. According to an earlier Washington Post story, incumbents in the Northeast are particularly worried.
To add insult to injury, the number of voters in the so-called generic ballot ("If the election for U.S. House of Representatives was held today, would you vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate in your congressional district?”) shows a dramatic upsurge in support for Democrats.
A Pew Research Center poll has found that these women are more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate than any time since 9/11. They’re not enthusiastic about how well the Democrats can protect them, but Republicans aren’t benefiting from this as they have in the past, in part because the security moms fear that the Republicans will involve the U.S. in too many overseas battles.
The security issue is the ace-in-the-hole Karl Rove expected to play. Ben Barnes, Democratic consultant said in an interview that it’s the same one that worked for them in 2000 and 2004. “I think Dick Cheney summed it up very well in ’04 when he got on television and said, ‘If John Kerry is elected president, we’ll have another serious attack within the first year.’ That’s unbelievable demagoguery, but it’s still worked. It started in 2002 when they beat Max Clelland [Vietman veteran and triple amputee] and they got the veterans to endorse Chambliss against him…which is kind of unheard of.”
And frustration with Bush, rising gas prices, and economic anxiety are just as powerful in shaping how these voters will act on election day. They support Democrats for Congress by a 12-point margin, similar to the national ratings, but in 2002, that 12-point margin favored the Republicans.
Pew chief Andrew Kohut said the "’negative impact of Iraq is hurting not only Bush but also the Republican Party as well.’ No longer, Kohut said, is ‘terrorism alone enough to keep’” traditional Republicans in the party’s fold.
Bush Approval Dropping
Six polls taken within the last week have the president’s approval rating from 33% to 38%. Even after the London terrorist raid, CBS had Bush at 36%, Stale Gallup at 37%, and Zogby at 34%.
Dr. Charles Franklin, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, said in an interview, “We know from the past that presidential approval does predict mid-term election outcomes,” although he’s not ready to predict a Democratic takeover of the House or Senate.
Part of the challenge for Bush is that Americans are less confident that we’re winning the war on terror. According to the Rasmussen Reports, only 39% of Americans are optimistic, a five-point drop in one month. In 2004, half the electorate thought we were winning. Conversely, those who think the terrorists are winning has jumped seven points in one month from 26 to 33%.
“Collectively, these numbers document one of the most pessimistic evaluations of the conflict we’ve found in the past two-and-a-half years,” Rassmussen writes
To make matters worse for the president, he is being assailed from all sides. Conservatives think he’s not conservative enough, and Pew has found that even moderate and liberal Republicans don’t approve of the job he’s doing.
Franklin, on his blog, Political Arithmetik, has noted that when a presidents rating falls into the 30% range, it’s usually “disastrous” for his party at the polls.
Republicans Doing the Old Two-Step with the President
Many Republicans are torn between the president’s ability to raise money for them and fear of being tainted by Bush’s low appeal. Jim Gerlach (R. PA) has said that the people in his suburban Philadelphia district are in a “sour mood.” The two-term Congressman is anxious to show his independence from the president to the point that his statement, "'When I think he's wrong, I let him know'" has become “a virtual campaign slogan, repeated in interviews and TV ads.”
According to the Post, Bush’s sinking approval is creating problems for Republicans across the country, but it’s most serious in the Northeast, where a Post-ABC News poll found Bush’s approval rating at 28% in that region with the Republican Congress in about the same straights. What’s giving Republicans concern is that the region is becoming more Democratic, which could make it hard for the GOP to recover seats lost in November. New York Republican State Senator Raymond Meier, running for an open seat, Reps. Rob Simmons (R-CT), Michael Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Curt Weldon (R-PA), Nancy Johnson (R-CT), and Christopher Shays (R-CT) are all in the fights of their political lives.
Republican concerns about the lack of coattails extend beyond the Northeast. Two key Bush supporters, U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy (Minnesota) and Sen. James M. Talent (Missouri,) who in the past have aired advertisements with him and have stumped with him at public rallies are both running for Senate seats. But Bush is nowhere to be seen in their ads. “A recent ad from Kennedy says, "’He doesn't do what the party says to.’"
One has to wonder when the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, of Buffalo, New York, runs ads that fail to mention he’s a Republican. “Endangered candidates are presenting themselves as independent-minded problem solvers who are not part of Washington's partisan wars.”
The Ever Enigmatic Generic Ballot
Franklin on Political Arithmetik calls the generic ballot “a blunt instrument.” There’s no mention of candidate by name, who the incumbent is, and the power of partisanship rather than issues when people go into a voting booth. He also warns that Democrats tend to better on the generic ballot than they do in the polls. Nonetheless, it’s a closely watched indicator, and Franklin acknowledged, “That lead is far bigger than anything since 94. It sure looks a lot better for Democrats than the previous few rounds; you would believe therefore that if Democrats were within 15 seats before this, with that big of a lead, you’d think they’d do well.”
Jay Cost, at Real Clear Politics is even less confident that the generic ballot has value. In fact, he argues that, based on his statistical analyses, the greater the skew towards Democrats, the less sure one can be of its predictive value.
One statistic that has to give the Republicans pause is when asked about their own Member of Congress, people are giving them a 55% approval rating—the lowest since the eve of the 1994 election.
Franklin says that one of the best predictors is Bush approval ratings…which don’t bode well for the Republicans.
So What Does It All Mean?
Cost says this November’s race is going to be a “squeaker.”
Bob Benenson, editor of Congressional Quarterly Politics and his staff have issued their latest take on the November elections. While they see reasons for Democratic optimism, there are still to many variables to declare a victor on election day. They agree that the Republicans are especially vulnerable in the Midwest and Northeast but add that their traditional strongholds in the South and West are showing strains as well.
“The only thing the GOP appears to have going for it right now is the fact that most voters have yet to tune in to the details of their upcoming electoral choices. So if the Republicans can just keep their heads down, they might avert a fatal storm,” writes Benenson. The experts with whom CQ talked all said that November could turn into a major upset for the Republicans.
But everyone is being cautious because too much is happening too quickly: The testimony of U.S. Generals about civil war in Iraq, the Israel-Hezbollah war, the failure of Congress to pass any meaningful legislation regarding minimum wage or tax cuts, and Ohio Republican Bob Ney’s decision to quit under suspicion of corruption…to name but a few.
CQ says that the Republicans are currently on course to win 220 House seats, just two more than a majority, but the degree of vulnerability in even some of their “safe” seats makes that just a best guess. In the Senate, the Democrats are going to have a harder time taking control, but it’s still well within the realm of the possible.
One factor CQ sites that has been written about elsewhere is that the Republicans seem better organized on the ground, which, in mid-term elections, is a significant advantage. At the same time, it appears that the Democrats, recognizing the edge, have been going on the offensive and strengthening their local party organizations.
As Ben Barnes said, “I’ve been a Democrat for four decades, and the party is always divided and doesn’t have good party discipline. They never get their act together until the last minute. But we’ve been successful.”